ELMSLEY, JOHN, naval officer, entrepreneur, office-holder, and philanthropist; b. 19 May 1801 at York (Toronto), Upper Canada, son of John Elmsley* and Mary Hallowell; m. Charlotte Sherwood and they had seven sons and three daughters; d. 8 May 1863 at Toronto.
When John Elmsley was born his father was chief justice of Upper Canada and the next year took on the same post in Lower Canada. John Elmsley Sr died in 1805 and Mary Elmsley returned to England with young John, his brother, and two sisters. Probably on the advice of a maternal uncle, Admiral Benjamin Hallowell, John entered the Royal Navy in 1815 as 1st class volunteer on Tonnant, and for the next nine years served on the Irish, North American (from 1818 to 1821), and Nore stations. In 1824 he was promoted lieutenant, but he had become disheartened with a profession which had “for its sole object the destruction of the Human Species” and retired on half pay.
Elmsley went to live with his mother at Waddon in Surrey, England, and intended supplementing the education he had received by teaching himself science and mathematics in order to qualify for a post on a naval surveying vessel. Instead, it was decided that John would return to Canada and manage the extensive land holdings acquired by his father. He arrived at York in 1825 and, with the assurance that came from a background which opened the doors of “all the Elite of the Upper Canadian Metropolis,” became a gentleman farmer on his large property at York and a manager of an estate. An eligible, well placed, and reputedly wealthy bachelor, he participated fully in the social life of the capital despite a privately expressed complaint of the “emptiness and frivolity [of what] is termed High Life and fashionable Society.” In September 1830 he became a member of the Executive Council and in January 1831 of the Legislative Council. He was first elected a director of the Bank of Upper Canada in 1828 (he was re-elected in 1829, 1830, 1832, and 1834) and in 1831 was one of the largest shareholders with some 330 shares. He was a founder of the Home District Agricultural Society in 1830 and was to hold the posts of president and secretary. He was one of the incorporators of the British American Assurance Company in 1833 and a major shareholder in the Welland Canal Company, and in 1836 was one of the promoters of the City of Toronto and Lake Huron Rail Road Company; he subscribed £100 to the railway and was elected a director in 1837.
On 12 Sept. 1831 Elmsley married Charlotte, daughter of Levius Peters Sherwood*, a judge on the Upper Canadian Court of King’s Bench. Because she was a Roman Catholic, a marriage service was held first at St Paul’s Catholic Church before the Reverend William Peter MacDonald* and another at the Anglican St James’ Church before John Strachan. A long trip to Europe followed. On the Elmsleys’ return to York in 1832 John’s attendance at St James appeared less regular, then ceased altogether. In August 1833 he announced to the Roman Catholic bishop, Alexander Macdonell*, his intention, “with the most hearty joy and satisfaction,” to join the Catholic Church. He wished to maintain secrecy, however, because his mother “would be most terribly shocked to learn that I had embraced a Religion against which she has ever entertained the most violent prejudices.” Less than six months later Elmsley printed and distributed 5,000 copies of a translation of a work defending the doctrine of transubstantiation written by the Catholic bishop of Strasbourg, which he had first seen in Europe. “I feel quite unable to gainsay it,” Elmsley reported to Strachan in forwarding a copy to him, and “unless the subject of the Bishop’s argument can be overthrown, I must, of necessity, no longer abstain from receiving Communion in that Church, where alone the real presence of our Blessed Lord . . . in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, is acknowledged.” Strachan quickly replied, in an open letter to his congregation, to what he saw as an attempt by Elmsley, “even before his final conversion, to labour for the conversion of others.” A vigorous debate and more pamphlets followed, including Strachan’s The poor man’s preservative against popery (1834) and a refutation of Strachan’s arguments by W. P. MacDonald.
The fortunes of the Catholic Church were at a low ebb at York when Elmsley joined it. A long dispute between Bishop Macdonell and an earlier incumbent at York, William J. O’Grady*, was still simmering despite Macdonell’s suspension of O’Grady in 1832. The conversion of so eminent a public figure as Elmsley at such a trying time appeared to Macdonell as providential and Elmsley was soon one of the bishop’s principal advisers in the diocese. He also played a leading lay role in Toronto as a church warden at St Paul’s, the city’s only Catholic church. It was not long, however, before Elmsley found himself among detractors and in conflict with the incumbent, Patrick McDonagh. To overcome the apathy he found among members of the congregation towards their duties, Elmsley suggested to Macdonell in 1835 that the parish be deprived of priests for several months. A recommendation that 2d. be collected at the church door from all worshippers on Sundays was accepted, and led to a dispute with McDonagh who refused to cooperate in levying what he considered an unjust “impost.” After the advice of Elmsley and other church wardens that McDonagh be removed was not taken, Elmsley resigned his post in 1836.
Elmsley’s fortune was based on land and, as many others in Upper Canada did, he speculated heavily in uel location rights after an 1830 order-in-council facilitated their transfer. His activities came to the notice of Sir John Colborne, who in 1833 recommended to the Executive Council a measure to curb the traffic. To Elmsley the proposed measure was in its “retrospective operation a Breach of good faith.” He protested so strongly in council that Colborne demanded an apology. Elmsley soon resigned as executive councillor, explaining to the Toronto Patriot that he could not “fearlessly express my real sentiments and opinions if opposed to the government for the time being without incurring the risk of dismissal.” Reformers were jubilant at this breach within the Family Compact and there was some speculation that Elmsley would join Reform ranks. In 1836 Sir Francis Bond Head* saw Elmsley as a man “inclined to liberality” when he reappointed him to the Executive Council. Later, in his Narrative, Head described Elmsley as “perhaps the most ultra-reformer in the Legislative Council.” In 1835 Elmsley had established the private, joint-stock Farmers’ Bank with George Truscott and served as its first president. The bank and the Home District Mutual Fire Company, of which he was to be a director in 1844, were both projects associated with Reformers.
Despite his earlier private misgivings about a military career Elmsley offered his services at the outbreak of the rebellion in 1837. He commanded one of the boats under the charge of Captain Andrew Drew* when the Caroline was cut loose on the Niagara River, and he later claimed to have fired the shot that killed Amos Durfee, the only known casualty in the episode. Elmsley also served on the St Lawrence River and in June and July 1838 was in command of the steamer Thames on the western Upper Canadian frontier. A provincial marine was established in summer 1838; he was put in charge at Toronto and given command of the Chief Justice Robinson. On board this vessel, on 28 Nov. 1838, Elmsley received an urgent request from Lieutenant Governor Sir George Arthur* to proceed with some 50 or 60 men to Lake Erie to assist Drew. Elmsley had agitated unsuccessfully about his rank in the provincial marine – he wanted the equivalent to his lieutenant-colonelcy in the militia and felt entitled to a rank above Drew’s – and now, faced with serving under Drew in an inferior rank and concerned that the status of his men was also in jeopardy, Elmsley reopened the question with Arthur on 29 November. Again rebuffed, Elmsley resigned his commission and agreed to order his next in command to proceed to Lake Erie. The force still did not leave, and it was soon revealed that Elmsley in an address to his men had informed them they were no longer bound by their oaths of service as the grades promised when they enlisted were not in effect. To some his words were treasonable. Arthur deemed his actions “prejudicial to the interests of the province and to the good of the Queen’s Service,” and found it impossible to meet Elmsley in the Executive Council. Elmsley rejected an investigation by the council and demanded instead a general court martial, which was refused. He was suspended from the council on 28 Jan. 1839 and later dismissed. That Elmsley, who had earlier in 1838 been described as “a wrong headed man but brave as a lion and devotedly attached to all that is British,” was loyal Arthur did not doubt, but his actions were ill advised.
Elmsley continued to sit in the Legislative Council until the union of Upper and Lower Canada in 1841. By then he was devoting himself largely to the management of his lands, steamship enterprises, and increasingly, church and philanthropic activities. In 1841 he became captain of the steamer Cobourg which plied the Kingston–Toronto route with stops at Cobourg and Port Hope. The next year he purchased with Donald Bethune the 475-ton Niagara from John Hamilton* and became its captain on the Toronto – Kingston route in the Royal Mail line. He changed the ship’s name to Sovereign in 1843 and continued as captain and part-owner until summer 1844 when he sold his interest, having lost, he claimed later, £1,200. He also participated in boating events in Toronto and was joint president with Hugh Richardson of the Toronto Regatta held in September 1842. He joined the Toronto Boat Club (later the Royal Canadian Yacht Club) in 1853.
Though land still occupied much of Elmsley’s attention after 1841 he appears to have been disposing of property he had accumulated. He had sold some of his large estate in Toronto and after the rebellion moved to the northern edge of it at Clover Hill. He retained close contacts with the clergy in Toronto and from about 1852 acted as the bishop’s secretary. When the construction of St Michael’s Cathedral began in 1845 he organized work “bees,” arranged much of the financing, and in 1848 when work was completed he and fellow convert S. G. Lynn guaranteed its mortgages so that it could be consecrated. In 1851 Elmsley took the 234-ton James Coleman on a run as far as Halifax, perhaps in order to raise funds for the cathedral.
Elmsley was liberal in the donations and in the time he volunteered to the Catholic Church and Catholic education, evidence of a deep commitment to his adopted faith. He helped build the first Catholic school in Toronto in 1841. He conducted catechism classes in city schools, donated prizes, and led children to Mass on Sundays. First elected a school trustee in 1841, he was a strong promoter of the establishment of separate schools in the city, founded an early commercial school in Toronto, and acted as agent in Toronto for separate schools throughout Canada West. He assisted the establishment in Toronto of the Sisters of St Joseph in 1851 (donating two acres of his Clover Hill estate for their convent) and of the Christian Brothers in 1851. He attempted to persuade Jesuits to open a college in Toronto in 1850 by holding out the promise of a site. When classes at St Michael’s College outgrew the bishop’s palace Elmsley donated four lots to the Basilian fathers for the college on condition that they build a parish church. He was a founder of the Widows and Orphans Asylum (which became the House of Providence) and an incorporator of the Toronto Athenaeum in 1848 and the House of Industry in 1851. After St Basil’s Church was built near his home in 1856 he attended it daily and organized in 1857 its chapter of the St Vincent de Paul Society. He was the chapter’s first president and retained the post until April 1863 when his health began to fail. He died in May, having made provision for his body to be buried in St Michael’s Cathedral and his heart to be deposited in the west wall of St Basil’s Church.
The most important pamphlets published on the occasion of John Elmsley’s conversion were: [J.-F.-M. Le Pappe de] Trevern, Extract from a celebrated work entitled an amicable discussion on the Church of England and on the Reformation in general . . . , trans. William Richmond (York [Toronto], 1833); W. P. MacDonald, Remarks on Doctor Strachan’s pamphlet against the Catholic doctrine of the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist . . . (Kingston, [Ont.], 1834); John Strachan, A letter, to the congregation of St. James’ Church, York, U. Canada, occasioned by the Hon. John Elmsley’s publication, of the bishop of Strasbourg’s observations, on the 6th chapter of St. John’s Gospel (York [Toronto], n.d.), and The poor man’s preservative against popery, containing an introduction on character and genius of the Roman Catholic religion . . . (Toronto, 1834).
Archives of the Archdiocese of Toronto, Macdonell papers, AB13–18; AB29–33; AC29–30; Add. ser.1, Macdonell, 1835; 1836; 1837. PAC, RG 1, E3, 18, pp.6–8; 23, pp.52–53; 24, pp.6–11, 110–11; RG 5, A1, 212, pp.116511–19, 116672–80; RG 7, G1, 72, p.405; 88, p.268; 94, pp.32–40. PAO, Elmsley-Macaulay papers; Macaulay (John) papers. PRO, Adm. 9/30, no. 1223; CO 42/418, ff.49–70, 91–91v; 42/456–57. University of St Michael’s College Library (Toronto), John Elmsley, notebook, 1823–41. UTL-TF,
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Cite This Article
Henri Pilon, “ELMSLEY, JOHN (1801-63),” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 1, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/elmsley_john_1801_63_9E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||Henri Pilon|
|Title of Article:||ELMSLEY, JOHN (1801-63)|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1976|
|Year of revision:||1976|
|Access Date:||April 1, 2023|